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Mr. Obama’s Message to Myanmar

The Myanmar government holds Rohingya, a Muslim minority, in camps in western Rakhine State.
Credit: Tomas Munita for The New York Times

By Editorial
November 12, 2014

President Obama was ebullient during his historic visit to Myanmar in November 2012, the first by an American president to a nation that appeared on the cusp of a democratic transformation after five decades of authoritarian rule. But, in the two years since, the military-dominated, quasi-civilian government in Yangon has moved far too slowly on the commitments to reforms it made to the United States when the two nations pledged to begin a new relationship.

On his second visit to Myanmar, which begins Wednesday, Mr. Obama might be tempted to be circumspect about the dispiriting state of change in Myanmar. That would be a mistake. Officials in Myanmar saw the importance of engaging with the United States to put behind an era of sanctions and international isolation. Mr. Obama should firmly remind them that his administration still has tools to accelerate, or delay, that process. Between now and next fall, when Myanmar is scheduled to hold a general election, there is time to press forcefully for meaningful democratic reforms and an end to the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims.

The political shifts this year have not been promising. President Thein Sein vowed early this year that “any citizen” would be allowed to run for the presidency. Yet a parliamentary committee in June voted against a constitutional amendment to fix a rule that forbids the country’s leading opposition leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, from being eligible for that office because her children hold British citizenship.

Besides disqualifying Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president, officials in Myanmar appear to be laying the groundwork for an electoral system that would prevent her party, the National League for Democracy, from ever holding a majority by reserving seats for military officers and representatives of ethnic minorities. Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi deserves a shot at leading the nation. This would happen only if the country’s Constitution is amended substantively to give political parties equal footing in future elections.

Beyond the dismal state of political reforms, Myanmar’s leaders have been callous in their response to a crisis sparked by the slaughter in 2012 of hundreds of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State. The government has done little to prosecute the perpetrators of a campaign that human rights activists say amounted to ethnic cleansing. Now the authorities appear intent on further marginalizing the Rohingya through a naturalization policy most would be ineligible for, a tactic that appears designed to drive more into exile. More than 100,000 Rohingya are now confined to miserable camps.

No one expected that Myanmar would become a model democracy overnight. And there have been some remarkable changes. Most political prisoners have been released; brutality by security forces has ebbed; and the media is less censored. Mr. Thein Sein may argue that his government needs more time to make good on the promises he made when Mr. Obama visited in 2012. Some may reasonably take years to carry out; others won’t. Mr. Obama should not mince words when he evaluates the progress on those promises.

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